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Capita: Turing Scheme Contract

Volume 818: debated on Thursday 27 January 2022


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what criteria were used to determine the award to Capita of the contract to administer the Turing scheme after March 2022.

My Lords, I declare my interest as co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Modern Languages.

My Lords, the procurement was run in line with Cabinet Office rules and bids were evaluated on the answers to four questions relating to quality and social value, compliance with a range of financial and corporate information tests and the cost of the service. Scores were moderated and weighted in line with the published evaluation model. Capita received the highest overall score and provided the best plan to administer opportunities for students to study and work abroad.

My Lords, is the Minister aware of the significant disquiet within the HE sector about this contract, notably from the University and College Union and the University Council of Modern Languages, on the grounds that Capita has a track record of failure on a range of other government contracts? The criteria listed by the Minister do not convince me that due diligence adequately covered the kind of experience and networks across the sector needed to run the scheme, rather than just being a cheaper alternative to the all-round stature and experience of the British Council. What mechanisms are in place to ensure quality assurance in the Capita contract?

I am happy to try to reassure the noble Baroness. We are confident that Capita has the capacity and the skills to administer the Turing scheme. The delivery of the scheme is a major DfE project and therefore subject to best-practice project management principles. We have a dedicated delivery management team that will work with Capita to make sure it is fulfilling its contractual obligations. Looking at the quality aspects relating to the scheme itself, there are performance metrics and financial incentives around the key milestones to make sure that it delivers a good service.

Capita may have been the lowest cost, but what experience does it have of higher education and international student exchange? How many fewer students do the Government expect to go to the EU as a result of this change from the Erasmus scheme? In addition to that, should we not see this in the context of the Government seeking to reduce ties with the EU?

Capita is administering the grants in relation to the scheme, and it has huge experience of that. It works with 21,000 schools, with almost all local authorities and closely with the Department for Education. If I may say so, the scheme is intentionally offering more opportunities to disadvantaged children who want to go to countries where they do not have to speak a foreign language. Over 60% of applications are for outside the EU.

My Lords, does my noble friend not accept that there is considerable disquiet that Turing is not an adequate replacement for Erasmus? It is not reciprocal in the same way, there is no guarantee that we will receive a large stream of students from abroad, and it is more indicative of insular Britain than of global Britain.

I absolutely cannot accept what my noble friend suggests. We have had over 41,000 applications for the scheme this year. That compares with around 16,500 under Erasmus+ in 2019-20. Forty-eight per cent of those placements are from students from disadvantaged backgrounds, compared to 37% under Erasmus. We are aiming for global Britain and this reflects it.

My Lords, a huge concern is that Turing does not pay for tuition fees. What assessment have the Government made of provision within the 120 countries participating in Erasmus, since why would such providers accept UK students when Erasmus will cover the fees for those institutions?

The noble Earl is right to raise the issue of tuition fees, but I am sure he is aware that even under Erasmus+ half of mobility placements were outside Erasmus+. Judging by the incredible success of our universities announced yesterday, with 605,000 international students coming to our universities —a ratio of two to one of in-placements to out under Erasmus—I do not think it is our top concern.

My Lords, I declare an interest as a member of the APPG for modern and foreign languages. Removing the Turing scheme from the British Council, which has a global reach and reputation, is questionable. Awarding it to Capita, whose list of public sector failures in England is extensive, is frankly incredible. How does the Minister justify this decision? Is it based on an ideology that, axiomatically for her, “public sector bad, private sector good”, even in the face of evidence to the contrary?

No, I tried to set out at the beginning how the decision was taken but I can give the noble Baroness more detail. The criteria for appointing the new provider were based 70% on quality and 30% on cost. Within that 70%, 10% was in relation to social value and Capita came out as the stronger provider on both counts.

My noble friend touched on the extent to which disadvantaged pupils are benefiting from the scheme. Are there any further details that she can give the House?

I thank my noble friend for his question. As I mentioned, 48% of applications have come from students from disadvantaged backgrounds. We have made it a great focus of the scheme and its promotion geographically has tried to reach communities that have not previously participated as strongly in these kinds of international exchanges. We are making sure that the nature of the placements and the financial model to support them particularly encourage disadvantaged students.

My Lords, does the noble Baroness not recognise that this issue of a lack of reciprocity and places for overseas—not just European —students in British universities is a serious failing of the Turing scheme? The figures she gives are not very convincing because we have always taken in more students to our excellent higher education sector than we have sent to others, so that is nothing new.

I can only repeat for the noble Lord that funding has been made available this year for over 41,000 placements. I appreciate that they are not all comparable in scale to the previous ones but 41,000 young people will access this scheme, compared to 16,596 under Erasmus. I leave the House to judge.

My Lords, the Minister is talking about how well the Turing scheme started. She omitted to tell the House that the British Council in fact set the scheme up and ran it for the first year of its operation, having previously run Erasmus+. It has absolutely unparalleled international contacts and networks, and an understanding of student exchange. Is the Minister remotely worried that it has taken one cut in funding after another? Does she have any reservations about prioritising short-term savings over supporting a major public institution, which is part of our soft power around the world?

The noble Baroness is absolutely right to pick me up on not having acknowledged the British Council’s role in the set-up of the scheme. We are very grateful to it, as we are for the way that it and the new provider are working together to ensure a seamless transition. The international network is less relevant to this contract because it is about grant administration. It is up to the institutions participating in the scheme to make those international links.

My Lords, is my noble friend not astonished that many of the people now carping about how the scheme is run, even though it has delivered two-and-a-half times more people, were not so long ago telling us that if Erasmus disappeared there would be no opportunities at all? Does she not get a bit tired of those people still fighting old battles?

I cannot comment on my noble friend’s final point but it is important that we look at the data and the evidence of what happens. As my noble friend has pointed out, the evidence is extremely encouraging.

I have stated that the Turing scheme is extremely important. It is a real priority for us; obviously, we will look at future funding as part of future SR agreements.